The term“neo-liberalism” has been mainstream in Europe and among Third World intellectuals since the early 1990s. It seems to have replaced “late capitalism” to describe our current global political economic conjuncture. It has not caught on in the states except among tone deaf leftists who are not typically speaking (certainly not communicating) with disagreeable sorts. The problem is that in USA political discourse the policy goals of neo-liberals : privatization of the public sector services and assets, reduced taxation on income and wealth, weakening of unions, global free trade, free movement of investment capital, de-regulation of industry, finance, and natural resource exploitation, and the end of New Deal safety net and the social democratic European welfare state, are associated, rightly, in the public mind, with a conservative agenda.
In USA we think of the 20th century move from Progressive era to the New Deal as the first liberal ascendency. So why have the neo-liberals, since the 1990s, been tying to undo what the liberals did in the 1930s? Doesn’t make sense– to Americans it remains liberal v. conservative. In European common thought the first liberalism was not in the 20th century, but was centered in 18th century bourgeois revolutions that took sovereignty from kings to the people, and ended the mercantilism of Navigation Acts, privateering, and landed aristocratic control of trade and investment. Todays neo-liberals, then, see themselves as re-enacting the 18th century liberation (liberty, liberal) of rational, economic man’s “innate propensity to truck, trade, and barter for individual gain.”
Maybe we are near ready to usefully adopt the critical terminology used by the rest of the world. Maybe not. In any case the essay excerpted below by Jedidiah Purdy in the summer 2014 volume of n+1 brings the term to a “fullness” that my sleepy list of neo-liberal policy symptoms above can not achieve.
What a writer he is!
“Neoliberalism is not so much an intellectual position as a condition in which one acts as if certain premises were true and others unspeakable. It is not doctrine but a limit on vitality of practical imagination. Acquiescing to it means accepting a picture of personality and social life that pivots on consumer style choice and self-interested collaboration. This is the basis of the realism, so called, that is the neoliberal trump card. It implies that market modeled activity—ticking off the preferences, going for the ask—is the natural form of life…..
The neoliberal condition gently enforces an anti-politics whose symptoms are often in what doesn’t get said or heard: nationalizing banks, nationalizing health care payments, proposing to arrange work differently, naming class interests and class conflict as a reality every bit as basic as ‘opportunity cost’. At a time when financial capitalism is palpably endangering so many people, places, and things, you know neoliberalism by the silence it induces…..
Thomas Hobbes describes the job of thinking as the untying the superstitious knots that enmesh the mind. The superstition I realized was neoliberal realism, which sets and polices the boundaries of the possible while pretending to map them objectively.”
Jedediah Purdy 2014 N+1